Matchmaking the real challenge for Usyk ahead of heavyweight debut

Oleksandr Usyk, my 2018 fighter of the year, is one of boxing’s pound-for-pound best. Regardless of who he’s facing, it’ll be a welcome sight to have Usyk back in the ring after his 11-month layoff due to a torn right biceps.

Usyk became the undisputed cruiserweight world champion in July 2018 when he toyed with Murat Gassiev in the World Boxing Super Series final. He retained his two belts and took two from Gassiev to become the first cruiserweight of the four-belt era to unify all the titles. He made it look easy in the process.

Following a crushing knockout of Tony Bellew to retain all the belts in November, Usyk executed the plans he’d discussed since turning pro. He relinquished the belts and announced that he would move up to heavyweight, where he said he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Evander Holyfield.

Holyfield was the first to unify the cruiserweight division in the three-belt era. He ultimately became an undisputed heavyweight champion.

Usyk’s heavyweight debut was initially scheduled for May 25 against former world title challenger Carlos Takam — a very reasonable and solid opponent for a heavyweight debut. Takam, after all, had ample experience against top opposition, and performed admirably, even in losses to Anthony Joshua, Joseph Parker, Dereck Chisora and Alexander Povetkin.

For an Usyk (16-0, 12 KOs) looking to get his feet wet in the division, Takam was the ideal opponent. He’s a durable guy with some talent and a big heart. In my view, he was a more dangerous opponent for Usyk than the man Holyfield faced in his 1988 heavyweight debut, James “Quick” Tillis.

Unfortunately Usyk suffered the injury and was sidelined. Normally, a promoter has language in the contract that allows for a postponement of the fight in the event of an injury — usually a 90-day window to reschedule. However Usyk was out much longer than that which released Takam from any obligation to reschedule, even though both sides were interested in doing so.

In the interim, Takam signed with Star Boxing promoter Joe DeGuardia and when an offer eventually came from Usyk co-promoter Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Boxing, they decided to go in another direction.

“By the time they circled back to Takam, he was already speaking to me and they were not offering him what he sought,” DeGuardia said, noting that Takam also wanted to be reimbursed for the training expenses he was out preparing for the May fight before it was called off. “They made an offer, but it was the same offer. Once I got involved the money came up a little bit, but not the amount we sought and we were unable to make a deal.”

That left Usyk in need of a new opponent. Enter Tyrone Spong, an unbeaten and untested 34-year-old former kickboxing star who has been a professional boxer since 2015.

Spong, who was 91-7-1 with 60 knockouts and one no contest, won various titles in his 13-year kickboxing career. He already had agreed to the fight prior to Monday, but it was contingent on his winning a tune-up in Mexico on Saturday night, which he did by second-round knockout against Jeyson Minda.

Some will certainly look at Spong as a massive downgrade from Takam. That’s a more than fair observation. But that is more of a matter of how hard it is to make a quality heavyweight fight than to suggest that Usyk and his team are somehow looking for a soft touch. In my view, nothing could be further from the truth. Just look at Usyk’s resume, which is filled with a slew of top cruiserweights.

It’s hard to make significant heavyweight fights. Ask any matchmaker. It’s why Tyson Fury is facing Otto Wallin next week (Sept. 14 on ESPN+), because other more well-known guys turned Fury down.

In ESPN’s heavyweight divisional rankings, every fighter in the top 10 either has a fight scheduled or would not be available to face Usyk on Oct. 12. Even dipping below the top 10, it’s still very hard to get something done.

Egis Klimas, who manages Usyk as well as other top fighters such as unified lightweight champion/pound-for-pound king Vasiliy Lomachenko, light heavyweight champion Oleksandr Gvozdyk and light heavyweight titlist Sergey Kovalev, has never been one to look for easy fights for his team.

Time and again he has tested his stable. He has often told me that his philosophy is to match his guys in solid fights because he has no interest in wasting time or money if a guy can’t fight. So when it came time to find an opponent for Usyk, there simply wasn’t a lot to pick from.

“We looked for a good opponent and this guy Spong is rated No. 4 by the WBO. He’s undefeated, [has a] good record. What else can you ask for in this situation?” Klimas told ESPN. “Not too many guys available. He came to our notice and what can you do? We wanted Takam, but what can I do? … You have to work with what you have.”

Klimas then drew what I considered a very reasonable comparison to Kovalev’s most recent fight against mandatory challenger Anthony Yarde, whom he had some problems with before knocking him out in the 11th round of an exciting fight. Yarde came into the fight as a relative unknown with virtually no amateur career and not a single noteworthy bout in his four-year, 18-fight career before facing Kovalev. Yet, Yarde gave him a tough go and had him in huge trouble in the eighth round.

“Nobody knew who Yarde was and look what kind of fight he brought to Kovalev in his hometown. This is almost the same situation,” Klimas said.

Once Takam moved on there were discussions for Ukraine’s Usyk to fight Russia’s Andrey Fedosov, who has faced better opponents than Spong, but is also not a serious contender. Ultimately, Usyk decided he didn’t want to fight Fedosov because he did not want to fight a Russian opponent and add in any measure to the increased tension between the neighboring countries.

“Spong is a better opportunity for Usyk,” Klimas said. “He’s very high in the WBO rankings, he’s undefeated and he was willing to fight. This is Usyk’s first heavyweight fight but one day he’s gonna be fighting the champions.”

It’s hard to disagree. Usyk is a special talent. Without hesitation, he has faced all comers at cruiserweight, including fighting on the home turf of his last five opponents.

Now it’s on to heavyweight, where there is much at stake as he is already in a mandatory position to eventually challenge the winner of the rematch between unified titlist Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua. But no matter if Usyk faced Takam, Fedosov or Spong in his debut, he’d remain the big favorite and be ready for the bigger fights in the division.

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